The Galapagos Island Tortoise is a big draw for tourists. There are nearly 15,000 giant tortoises still alive in this Archipelago.
The original ancestor of the tortoises was probably of normal size and evolved into the present day giants after its arrival in the Galapagos Islands.
Galapagos tortoises are also the world's largest, with some specimens exceeding 5 feet (1.5 meters) in length and reaching 550 pounds (250 kilograms).
There are now only 11 species of giant tortoises left in the Galapagos Islands, down from 15 when Darwin arrived. Hunted as food by pirates, whalers, and merchantmen during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, more than 100,000 tortoises are estimated to have been killed off.
Nonnative species such as feral pigs, dogs, cats, rats, goats, and cattle are a continuing threat to their food supply and eggs.
There are about 15,000 giant tortoises left altogether. As the hunters found it easier to collect the tortoises living round the coastal zones, the healthiest populations today tend to be those in the highlands.
The Galapagos Island Tortoise is now listed as endangered and have been strictly protected by the Ecuadorian government since 1970. Captive breeding efforts by the Charles Darwin Research Station are also having positive effects.
The Galapagos Giant Tortoises lead an uncomplicated life, grazing on grass, leaves, and cactus, basking in the sun, and napping nearly 16 hours per day. A slow metabolism and large internal stores of water mean they can survive up to a year without eating or drinking.
Spanish sailors who discovered the Galapagos Archipelago in 1535 actually named it after the Galapagos Island Tortoise, the correct Spanish word for tortoise is Galapago.
The original tortoise that arrived to Galapagos was probably of normal size and evolved into the giant tortoises after its arrival to this Archipelago.
This is due to a phenomenon seen in many Island ecosystems where gigantism evolves because there is no longer any need to hide from predators and because there are no other similar animals to compete with for food.
Once the Galapagos Island Tortoise spread around the archipelago, they evolved on their isolated Islands into the different species we see today, some with domed carapaces (shells), and others with saddle-back carapaces.
The unusual saddle shape is believed to have evolved several times on different Islands, showing that it must be a very successful design for life in the Galapagos Islands.
Around three to five million years ago volcanic eruptions in the Pacific Ocean gave birth to an new archipelago 600 miles away from mainland Ecuador in South America.
This group of Islands had flat shorelines and mountainous interiors, but despite its equatorial location, the habitat of several of the Islands was desert-like.
Thirteen major Islands, eight smaller ones, and around forty islets now comprise the entire Archipelago known officially as Archipelago de Colon.
Archipelagos around the world are known for their unique wildlife, and the Galapagos Islands are synonymous with the Galapagos Tortoises.
Many years ago tortoises roamed freely on every continent except Australia and scientists believe that shortly after the birth of the Galapagos Islands, the Galapagos giant tortoises drifted from the mainland with the ocean current, their shells keeping them afloat.
The quiet Island life suited the giant tortoises well.
With abundant food and no predators, the Galapagos Island Tortoises grew to immense sizes, many weighing over 500 pounds and living more than 100 years.
When visiting the Galapagos Islands, a great place to check out the Galapagos Island Tortoise is at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island near Puerto Ayora.
This research center is helping to look after these remarkable reptiles and study their ways of life so as to help them survive.
When at the research station, you can also visit Lonesome George, a Galapagos Tortoise sub specie from Pinta Island who is the only one of his kind remaining.
Several attempts have been made to cross breed him with other subspecies of tortoises, but no attempt has been successful so far.
If you have questions about the Galapagos Island Tortoise, You can post them on our Galapagos FAQ Page and if you'd like to request more information about our recommended Galapagos Tours to visit these Islands, You can Contact us here